Mahdi Army: the next Hezbollah?

The rather absurd idea that "the surge" has been a success -- a notion has been repeated by Democrats and Republicans -- often fails to overlook one crucial point: the fact that al-Sadr (probably the most powerful person in Iraq) has ordered that the militias in the Mahdi Army be frozen. That was in late August. Soon after reports about the success of the surge were rampant.

In anycase, Sam Dagher, of the Christian Science Monitor, has an interesting article about how the Mahdi Army is trying to mirror Hezbollah, another Shiite group that has become a serious force, both politically and militarily.

He writes:

For more than three months, the Mahdi Army has been largely silent. The potent, black-clad Iraqi Shiite force put down its guns in late August at the behest of Moqtada al-Sadr.

The move has bolstered improved security in Baghdad, even though the US says some Mahdi Army splinter groups that it calls "criminals" or "extremists" have not heeded Mr. Sadr's freeze.

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south – from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah – a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

Dagher adds that the aim of the Mahdi Army, is not to be a player in a unity government, but rather, to serve as a "national resistance force" much like Hezbollah.

As for Sadr's intent, his spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, says: "We have new visions for what the Mahdi Army will do in the next phase."

Mr. Obeidi explains that most Shiite parties have embraced the political process wholeheartedly and accept the presence of US forces, while the Sadrists, who continue to oppose it, need to keep their Army as a "national resistance force."